A new National Science Foundation-funded project is tackling a perplexing problem — that of the toxic heavy metals left behind after uranium mining in Native American communities in New Mexico — from a multifaced angle.

Instead of offering a top-down, one-size-fits-all approach to this problem that is contaminating water supplies — disproportionally impacting socioeconomically-challenged communities — this project is seeking solutions from a cross-disciplinary team, which includes Native Americans themselves (including several research team members) and their cultural knowledge.

“Biosensors for Field Detection of Aqueous Heavy Metals: A Collaboration with Native American Communities” starts this month and ends July 31, 2028. Part of the NSF Using the Rules of Life to Address Societal Challenges program, the $3 million project is being led by several researchers in the School of Engineering: Gabriel López, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering; José Cerrato, a professor in the Gerald May Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering; Matthew Lakin, an assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science; Nick Carroll, an associate professor of chemical and biological engineering; as well as Abraham Meles, an associate professor of physics at Navajo Technical University. 

Some of the work will take place at UNM’s Center for Micro-Engineered Materials, which is a UNM-wide research center, as well as the METALS Superfund Research Program, based in the College of Pharmacy in collaboration with the UNM main campus. The community engagement work in this project will be conducted in collaboration with the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC).

Additional researchers from UNM who are part of the project are Jami Nelson-Nuñez, associate professor and department chair of political science, as well as Bill Gannon, a research professor in biology, and David Peabody, a professor in molecular genetics and microbiology. The team also includes Irene Anyangwe, an associate professor of biology and chair of the School of Science at Navajo Tech; Perry James, a Navajo culture and education expert and assistant professor of bilingual education at Western New Mexico University; Christopher Shuey, director of the Uranium Impact Assessment Program for SRIC and the community engagement core lead for the UNM METALS program; and Kirena Tsosie, a community water specialist at SRIC and a member of the UNM METALS program. 

López said that issue of heavy metal contamination as a byproduct of uranium extraction has long been a problem in New Mexico and many communities in the Southwest, posing significant health concerns.

“The problem is quite widespread across the Grants Mining District, with approximately 500 abandoned mines and uranium contaminating many potential water sources,” he said. “This project is addressing a societal concern and utilizing different sources of knowledge and will work with the community to determine the best solutions.” 

The Grants Mining District — located along the southern margin of the San Juan Basin in New Mexico’s Cibola, McKinley, Sandoval and Bernalillo counties as well as on tribal lands— was the primary focus of uranium extraction and production activities in New Mexico from the 1950s until the late 1990s. 

López said that the team working with Navajo Tech is key to getting access to the communities most affected by this issue, as well as providing expertise on detection methods. Cerrato has also previously worked with Native communities to tackle this issue of uranium mine waste (he was awarded an NSF CAREER Award for this work in 2017), and his technical and cultural knowledge will be key to this project.

López said that each member of the team brings a unique area of research that is expected to produce a unique set of solution options. A few members of the team had been on previous NSF “Rules of Life” projects, and some members of the project had even gotten to know each other’s work through working at the Center for Micro-Engineered Materials, which López calls an ideal “venue where researchers can share what they are working on.”

“Various members of the team had worked together previously, so it all came together very quickly,” he said. 

For instance, López, Carroll, Lakin and Peabody all bring expertise about synthetic biology to the project, which can yield novel solutions not found in nature — and that can also be controversial. 

“People are always concerned when engineers are messing with nature. They are afraid of the unknown,” he said. “There is a real ethics component that is important to understand.”

Along with engineering, science, culture and ethics, there is also an important social and policy component to this issue. Gannon has expertise in the ethics of synthetic biology. Nelson-Nuñez has expertise in water policy, sanitation, energy provision, and poverty and inequality.

In a large, often siloed, research university, it is often not intuitive to consider other disciplines when developing a research project, but the interdisciplinarity of this project is one of the things that sets this team apart. Indeed, as part of this NSF “Rules of Life” proposal, a broad-based team to tackle a complex challenge was a requirement. 

“The diversity of this team really highlights the strength, depth and breadth of the UNM research enterprise,” said Ellen Fisher, UNM’s Vice President for Research. “UNM’s Center for Micro-Engineered Material researchers will have the opportunity to apply their science and engineering innovations side-by-side with researchers who focus on other aspects of this critical issue like public policy and ethics. Ultimately, the team will contribute to finding crucial solutions to a longtime problem that poses direct health risks to our Native American communities in New Mexico.” 

López said the outcome of this project could include developing new products for detection of uranium in water sources, much like a COVID test, that could potentially be commercialized.

“Everyone is familiar with the COVID test, so why isn’t there a simple test for uranium?” he said. “Ideally, there would be a product that those interested could use as an alternative that would not be as expensive as tests that are currently available only through specialized central labs.” 

However, he notes that the community will be the ultimate authority on developing solutions from this project — a true user-directed research project.

“It could be that a problem like this can only be addressed by a team like this,” he said.